Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pledged to the House Agriculture Committee to “root out” systemic racism and barriers at USDA that prevent Black and other socially disadvantaged farmers from receiving the same level of assistance that white farmers.

He also said the department would work as quickly as it can to implement provisions in the American Rescue Plan to distribute $4 billion in debt relief for Black and other minority farmers holding direct or guaranteed loans, including Hispanic, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Native American farmers. Farmers will receive payments worth 120% of their indebtedness; the additional 20% is intended to cover the taxes that the farmers would owe on the payments. 

At what committee chairman David Scott, D-Ga., called a “historic hearing,” Vilsack said a working group has been formed across all USDA agencies to address discrimination in the award of contracts, benefits and other services.

Although “good-faith efforts” have been made in the past to respond to specific acts of discrimination, “more needs to be done to dig deeper into the systemic causes and barriers that perpetuate discriminatory practices and to deal directly with the cumulative effect of discrimination,” he said.

Vilsack said the department sent a letter to banks Wednesday holding guaranteed loans asking for their forbearance.

“As you are likely aware, on Jan. 26, 2021, the USDA suspended all adverse actions for all direct loan borrowers during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Farm Service Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneaux said in the letter. “At that time, we also encouraged guaranteed lenders to be flexible and consider similar limits, on liquidations in particular. We are now asking lenders to suspend all adverse actions for all USDA guaranteed loan borrowers until the Secretary and FSA have established a process to carry out payments under Section 1005” of the ARP (bold in original).

Vilsack also said USDA is trying to assess whether farmers receiving debt relief payments would be subject to prepayment penalties on their loans and will work with the lenders on that issue.

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Vilsack highlighted the appointment of Dewayne Goldmon as a senior adviser on racial equity, whose job is to “put an equity lens on everything we do,” and said he looks forward to working with the first African American deputy secretary of the department, Jewel Bronaugh, who has yet to be confirmed.

Vilsack got some pushback from Republicans on the committee. Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia said he felt it was “racist” that white women are not eligible for debt relief assistance, but members on the Democratic side and Vilsack himself said the debt relief addresses historic discrimination.

Vilsack also pledged to diversify employment within FSA and FSA county committees. “We have to cast a wider net for people to work in the local offices,” he said.

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